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COVID-19 & Opportunities for Environmental Change

Hannah Taub, Environmental Humanities Graduate Research Assistant

Recently I’ve been struck by a certain meme that’s been circulating on the Internet since early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. A picture of an animal doing something out of character, like a cow standing in the ocean and a caption that reads, “Nature is healing. We are the virus.”
With entire communities under quarantine around the world, news of more wildlife presence on typically busy urban streets and waterways spread. Photos of mountain lions prowling main streets, herds of wild sheep navigating a downtown, and even reports of louder-than-usual bird songs swirled, suggesting to some that the COVID-19-induced shutdowns created the time and space for nature to heal from the devastating effects of human disturbances such as noise, air and light pollution.
COVID-19 shutdowns led to widespread speculation about the pandemic’s effect on climate change. While greenhouse gas emissions have been lower during the pandemic, the scientific consensus is that a short dip in emissions will do little help curb global warming. An increase in household waste and PPE litter are new pandemic problems. With so many of us home for longer periods, too, video streaming and home energy use are higher than usual. The potential for COVID to provide the environmental reprieve from human devastation is mostly overblown.

The COVID era and its accompanying “nature is healing” rhetoric illuminates a discourse for environmental advocates to share. First, we must insist that the temporarily quieter streets, lessened travel and slower business are not enough to combat climate change. Rather than hoping that the tragedy of a pandemic could lead us to actions which are coincidentally beneficial to our planet, we must actively pursue the climate change fight -- first and foremost, calling on our leaders and world corporations to respond to the science and work vigorously to shift gears and reduce emissions.

Engagement with the world around us is at the core of humanity. In the digital age, and in the time of COVID, so much of that engagement has turned virtual. From online tours of national parks and museums, to Zoom happy hours and DJ sets, we have found creative ways to stay in contact with one another, and even to experience the natural world without leaving our homes. Our fascination with wildlife and what they have been up to during the pandemic has taken to online platforms, too, with the “nature is healing meme” as a primary example. The increased presence of urban wildlife during quarantine does not necessarily suggest the negative impact of humanity on nature. Rather, it serves as a reminder that we are a part of nature, and that nature is a part of our cities, as much as concrete and skyscrapers are.

Last Updated: 6/30/21